All successful NHL penalty killing units have the following elements in place:
1. Committed forwards who are active on the kill and willing to block shots
2. Quality faceoff men
3. A goaltender capable of making "the big save" when shorthanded
Below are the clubs numbers and rankings for the past six seasons:
2010 - 2011 : 77.0% (29th)
2009 - 2010 : 78.0% (26th)
2008 - 2009 : 77.5% (27th)
2007 - 2008 : 84.7% (5th)
2006 - 2007 : 84.6% (8th)
2005 - 2006 : 84.1% (8th)
Looking at these numbers, it is very easy to understand why the Oilers penalty kill seemingly dropped over night. The departure of both Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner took place before the 2008 - 2009 season and Edmonton decided to not replace either player with someone that brought similar abilities to the club. They went from a team with three outstanding faceoff men in Stoll, Reasoner and Shawn Horcoff to only Horcoff and the numbers clearly show that was a terrible call on the part of management. Not only were both Stoll and Reasoner great faceoff guys on the PK but they were both very active on the kill and blocked a ton of shots, especially Reasoner. Blocking shots used to be an Edmonton Oilers trademark just a short time ago. Nowadays, I am in utter amazement when I see a forward go down to block a shot and they usually do it incorrectly. There is a skill set to doing it properly or to lay it on the line and sacrifice ones body, see Captain Horcoff in the 2006 playoffs. Whatever the reason, blocking shots are no longer a priority for this club and that needs to be addressed before the 2011-2012 campaign begins.
When you couple that with the teams recent struggles in goal...do you see a pattern forming here? Nikolai Khabibulin's poor performance in Edmonton has been well documented and while Devan Dubynk made strides in his overall game last season, the two coupled with the struggles of Jeff Deslauriers in the previous season, left the Oilers with less then average NHL goaltending. In fact, if you go back to the 2008 - 2009 season even Dwayne Roloson struggled mightily to keep the puck out of the net when the team was short-handed. Roloson had a great year statistically in his final season in Edmonton colours but even he was unable to make the big save for the club when they needed someone to stop the bleeding. They always say your best penalty killer has to be your goalie and that hasn't been the case for three consecutive seasons in the Alberta capital.
It is no surprise to anyone that follows the Oilers, that the club finally made it a priority this off season to re-aquire a top face-off man and penalty killer that could lend a helping hand to the team captain. Only question I have, is why did it take so long?
They are depending on Eric Belanger to be that missing piece of the puzzle that hasn't been seen in these parts since the aforementioned Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner. While Belanger is a top end guy in the circle, I don't expect him to be as good a penalty killer as either Stoll or Reasoner but it is a huge step in the right direction for the team. Belanger and Shawn Horcoff will centre the two penalty killing units with Ryan Jones and likely one of Ryan Smyth or Jordan Eberle as the wingers. Not a league leading penalty killing unit by any stretch but these players should at the very least allow the club a chance to compete on a nightly basis this season...and if they get above average goaltending, who knows what they might achieve.
Make no mistake, this seasons group of penalty killers do not rival the units that Edmonton were able to send over the boards between 2005 - 2008. That being said, bringing in help that was desperately needed to develop an aspect of the game, that in recent years seemed to be less of a priority for the organization, should pay off down the road. If they are to take the next step towards becoming a successful club, the penalty kill must start doing its part.